Vladimir Putin has all the cards in his favor. Even if Russian forces do not attack Ukraine in the coming days, he is poised to gain another strategic victory at comparatively low cost. If he gains nothing else, Putin has already successfully maneuvered the international community to attend to his demands. If negotiations succeed, he can hold Ukraine hostage under threat of the next exercise-turned-invasion, just as he did with last year’s rehearsal. Building on the recent incursion into Kazakhstan, Putin’s plans are primed to deliver a renewed Russian empire in its near abroad, even as it expands in Africa, Latin America, and the Arctic.
Increased US and European troop deployments closer to Ukraine help neutralize potential threats of regional escalation. However, the deterrent effect remains negligible inside Ukraine itself. Military posturing is an essential part of strategic competition, but one that has little direct impact on Putin’s most likely offensive plan. Even in the extreme, Russian order of battle does not favor activities beyond Ukraine’s borders. Why goad a reluctant NATO into the fight by attacking its edges?
Absent NATO forces along the forward line of troops, Russian forces will likely dominate the battlefield in Ukraine, especially during the initial phases of conflict. Few can withstand the withering artillery barrage that defines Russian tactics; even fewer those without air support like Ukraine. The sheer volume of Russian infantry, tanks, and attack helicopters may negate any defensive advantage Ukrainian forces gain by digging in. In addition, Putin’s vast combined arms units are augmented by elite Spetsnaz forces, Federal Security Service (FSB) and military intelligence (GRU) personnel, and cyber capabilities, not to mention pre-positioned provocateurs in key areas of Ukraine. The breadth of Russian hybrid attacks will be widespread against Ukrainian command and control, as well as essential industries and services. Both would bring devastating blows to a Ukrainian government that would already be fending off Little Green Men in and around critical urban centers.
However, beyond the initial clash of arms, forcibly maintaining a permanent pro-Russian government in Kyiv to prevent Ukraine’s entrance into NATO remains less certain than battlefield victories or seizure of the capital. This is especially true if, as looks likely to be the case, Ukraine adopts a strategy of irregular warfare.
The Utility of Irregular Warfare in Ukraine
For several years, United States and NATO partners have provided more than lethal and nonlethal aid to Ukraine. Even though types and amounts of assistance have varied, the heart of support has been training in irregular warfare. At its foundation, irregular warfare centers on the population as a critical source of strength and victory. As such, popular resistance against attack and resilience in the fight rely on identifying and mobilizing nascent capabilities within the population. Citizen-soldiers are trained to target crucial vulnerabilities in the enemy forces’ advance, sabotaging their ability to consolidate gains along the way. Irregular warfare makes victory more costly than the aggressor can endure, and those costs grow over time.
It does so by maximizing the advantages weaker forces can have over their stronger opponents—advantages of terrain, local knowledge, and social connections. As a result, irregular warfare utilizes trained soldiers fighting in and among the people, as well as civilians providing aid and intelligence on enemy movement and capabilities. Whether hiding in plain sight or attacking from the shadows, irregular warfare increases the number of combatants while making them harder to identify. This provides a powerful toolkit against Russian conquest of Ukraine.
US and allied special operations forces have gotten very good at training partners to use that toolkit. Built on Cold War operations against Soviet proxies, post-9/11 missions have included a range of security force assistance, counterterrorism, and information operations. Most of all, the past twenty years have refined the special operations joint task force, a model replicated across multiple operational environments worldwide. As a result, irregular warfare support has brought more than traditional resistance training. It has helped build a network approach to resistance that Ukrainian special operations forces have put into practice and in preparation for a Russian invasion.
Recent certification for service in the NATO Response Force confirms a high level of special operations interoperability with partner forces, a critical requirement in irregular warfare. Equally critical is the perception of legitimacy among the population and ability to mobilize support, and in Ukraine—a country that already holds the military in extraordinarily high regard—special operations forces are especially celebrated. Ukraine also has a legacy of popular resistance dating back over centuries. Adding to that legacy, the Euromaidan uprising was supported by more than signs and songs—it had teeth. Groups like “Common Cause” and “Self Defense” armed and organized the defense of critical buildings as symbols of freedom and sources of strength. So long as they stood, the fight went on, and the fight was eventually won by violent resistance.
In short, Russia has amassed troops on the border of a country in which two of the most important building blocks of a successful irregular warfare campaign are in place: special operations forces that have received vital training and have become substantially more capable, and a public that is once again demonstrating its willingness to fight to defend the country.
Irregular Warfare Will Raise the Costs of Invasion
The Russian armed forces bearing down on Ukraine bear little resemblance to their Soviet predecessors. Previous large-scale operations in Chechnya (1994–2000) and Georgia (2008) led to significant force modernizations to increase functional combat power. The 2008 New Look reforms moved the Russian Army away from Soviet-era masses led by layers of redundant command authorities, and added greater integrated cyber and logistics support. Additionally, Russia’s military involvement in Syria since 2015 has increased Spetsnaz counterinsurgency experience while also presenting an opportunity to refine joint C4ISR capabilities (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance). Coupled with extensive electronic warfare advances, Russian forces present a hybrid behemoth that poses serious threats to NATO, to say nothing of Ukraine.
However, the longer a fight in Ukraine continues, the greater the costs felt in the Kremlin, and not just from worsening international relations and increasing sanctions. In that regard, while the Zapad 2021 exercise may have been designed as a proof of concept, but the lessons produced by it may not prove sufficient to guide an invasion. In Russia’s large-scale exercises, the configuration of Russian forces have been vast, but also complicated—and would be even more so in an invasion scenario. Large troop movements across Russia show the ability to project power over great distances, but they also stress command and control. The scale of a Ukrainian invasion further complicates Russia’s personality-driven decision making and intra-elite power struggles. If things do not go smoothly or quickly, internal frictions will likely create more than headaches in the Kremlin; they may undermine a coordinated effort.
Even if Russian forces are able to capture Kyiv in just a few days, there would remain the difficult task of rapidly consolidating gains across eastern Ukraine. Simply traversing nearly eight hundred miles between the capital and the Donbas would likely consume previously stockpiled reserves—and that assumes they do not meet active resistance. Nor can Russia quickly replace vital supplies as drawing additional resources from Russia becomes problematic over time due to limitations of rail and road systems.
All the while, Russian forces would be forced to contend with Ukrainian irregular warfare capabilities that directly impose costs along Russia’s advance and supply lines. A mechanized advance from the Belarus border to Kyiv or northwest from the Donbas would rely on Ukraine’s three main highways east of the Dnieper river and one to the west. Normally, roads in mid-February are covered in layers of compacted ice and snow, which later melt to expose a minefield of potholes. This year, however, has seen unusual warming that threatens to turn highways into mush and fields to mud. Early spring is a bad time to invade Ukraine if the main roads have been destroyed, a task well within Ukraine’s irregular warfare toolkit.
Although Putin retains a firm grasp on power and the ability to whip the various components of Russia’s defense apparatus into a coordinated war effort, this does not mean that fissures do not exist. A Ukrainian irregular warfare campaign that seeks to exploit these could have an outsized impact. Despite the prevalence of Russian intelligence and security agents in Ukraine, Ukrainian information saboteurs can push out disinformation to thwart Russian occupation. They have already done so by penetrating and frustrating past Russian espionage. Post-invasion FSB and GRU elements will need Ukrainian helpers if they intend to do more than murder people. That vulnerability creates opportunity for Ukrainian partisan networks to manipulate, misdirect, and undermine Russian coordination.
Finally, the longer Russian troops attack and hold Ukrainian cities, the greater the chances the real message will get out. An information blackout across Ukraine means nearly as much to the watching world as do images of Russian atrocities. Although denial of service and broadcast interruptions have long been part of Russia’s repertoire in Ukraine, doing so for any length of time is exceedingly difficult in the contemporary information environment. This would be especially true if the Ukrainian diaspora community becomes involved from afar, amplifying the facts of Russia’s actions that do emerge through the tenuous clampdown on information dissemination Russia will seek to enforce. Flooding the international narrative space with demands for the truth will reveal the megaphone of lies behind the silence of Russian occupation.
Irregular Warfare Abroad Can Cost Even More
If Ukraine effectively marshals the irregular warfare capabilities at its disposal, Putin will see broad strategic costs accrue alongside operational ones. People fighting and dying to defend their homes undermines the Kremlin narrative of kicking out the fascists to restore Slavic unity. Persistent Ukrainian resistance also threatens the bottom line for many in the Kremlin’s inner circle. Russia is expending enormous capital just to maintain the threat of an invasion, and elites are looking for an easy payoff in Ukraine. They stand to gain even larger ones abroad through increased arms sales and security contracts. A long fight in Ukraine can not only drain their coffers, but also undercut their profit margins, destabilizing Putin’s position at home and abroad.
Irregular warfare bridges the physical, human, and information dimensions of conflict to bring about those effects. Linking battlefield failures in Ukraine to failures in places far beyond the Russian empire degrades Russia’s reputation as a military powerhouse. Pointing out “bad” Russian actions is one thing, but exposing Russian foolishness hurts far worse. Specifically, highlighting operational ineptitude and technical malfunctions in Ukraine can impact global arms sales and the Russian brand in the competitive market for private military companies (PMCs). Both costs would heighten intra-elite rivalries in Moscow as losses mount elsewhere. When those failures leave dead Russians in their wake, oft-repeated lies about training deaths in Ukraine, Syria, and the Central African Republic cannot easily convince the growing list of grieving Russian mothers.
Irregular warfare can also raise opportunity costs for Russian global power projection, which is based in part on everything from trade to basing agreements, but increasingly also on Russian PMCs. However, the United States maintains a powerful advantage over Russia through its global partnerships, both as a legacy of the partnership network that has taken shape over two decades of countering violent extremism and the simple fact that US special operations forces out-compete any Russian PMC in both reputation and effect. This is where Ukraine’s international supporters, especially the United States, can augment Ukrainian information efforts. Messaging that comparison—and Russian setbacks in the event of a Ukraine invasion—to would-be customers can limit Russian opportunities, and over time undermine the value of PMCs as a tool of Russian power projection. That would be a serious cost to Putin, and much of it can start in Ukraine, the one place he likely assumes an easy victory.
Ultimately, if Ukraine implements an irregular warfare response to a Russian invasion, the costs of defending Ukraine would be substantially borne by Ukrainian resistance fighters. But just as Belgian resistance slowed the Schlieffen Plan for several critical days in 1914, enabling French forces to pivot and blunt the German advance, Ukraine’s citizen-soldiers can delay Russian victory, and raise Putin’s costs by prolonging any effort to bring Ukraine to its knees. That time may be all that is needed to galvanize a decisive international response. Even though David may lose the initial fight with Goliath, he has many more brothers and sisters armed with far more than a sling. Irregular warfare is the means by which they are brought into the fight.
Dr. Spencer Meredith is a professor of national security strategy at the National Defense University. He serves as strategic advisor and Russian subject matter expert for multiple special operations commands, including ongoing Irregular Warfare planning efforts in Ukraine and abroad.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, National Defense University, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Sgt. Jeremiah Woods, US Army